A user-led network has raised grave concerns about the implications of proposed new emergency legislation on the rights of people in mental distress.
Today (Thursday), the government is set to publish an emergency coronavirus bill that aims to give ministers powers “to take the right action at the right time to respond effectively to the progress of the coronavirus outbreak”.
But the bill will include two measures that could affect the rights of people in mental distress, and the National Survivor User Network (NSUN) fears this could lead to both more coercion and more neglect, as well as fewer safeguards.
According to information released this week by the Department of Health and Social Care, the bill will allow someone to be sectioned under the Mental Health Act with the approval of just one doctor, rather than the current two, which it says will relieve the burden on frontline staff.
The bill will also allow the temporary extension or removal of some of the time limits in the Mental Health Act, if staff numbers become “severely adversely affected during the pandemic period”.
This could make it easier to detain people for longer in hospital under the act, but it could also lead to others being released more quickly into the community, potentially when there are no community mental health services available to support them at home*.
NSUN said it was concerned that significant changes to the law were being “rushed through with minimal informed scrutiny, and inadequate consideration as to their impact on the lives and rights of people who live with mental ill health, distress, or trauma”.
Akiko Hart (pictured), NSUN’s chief executive, said: “Whilst we understand that these are unprecedented times, any legislative change must be proportionate and thought through, and should protect all of us.
“Minimising some of the safeguards in an already coercive Mental Health Act, and extending its powers, is a step in the wrong direction.”
She added: “Keeping individuals unnecessarily detained beyond their section because of workforce pressures is a violation of their human rights.
“Equally, releasing individuals because of pressures on the workforce or the mental health estate is deeply irresponsible.
“Community mental health services have been depleted by years of funding cuts, and will be further reduced over the coming months.
“It is unclear from the wording of the proposal what the changes would look like in practice and what the impact might be on people who live with mental health difficulties.
“Our concern is that the proposed coronavirus bill would have serious consequences for some of the people it seeks to protect, and is a deep and onerous encroachment on both our civil liberties and our rights to appropriate support.”
NSUN’s concerns came as the UN’s special rapporteur on the rights of persons with disabilities warned that little had been done to protect the rights of disabled people across the world during the pandemic (see separate story).
Other changes set to be introduced through the coronavirus bill will allow health bodies to delay carrying out an assessment for eligibility for NHS continuing care.
The bill will also allow local authorities to avoid meeting some disabled people’s assessed social care needs in full or delay some assessments of people’s care needs.
The government says councils “will still be expected to do as much as they can to comply with their duties to meet needs during this period and these amendments would not remove the duty of care they have towards an individual’s risk of serious neglect or harm”.
It says the powers “would only be used if demand pressures and workforce illness during the pandemic meant that Local Authorities were at imminent risk of failing to fulfil their duties and only last the duration of the emergency”.
Professor Chris Whitty, the government’s chief medical officer, said: “Our approach to responding to this outbreak has and will remain driven by the scientific and clinical evidence so we do the right thing at the right time.
“The measures included in this bill will help support our frontline workers, protect the public and delay the peak of the virus to the summer months when the NHS is typically under less pressure.”
*NSUN’s understanding of what is currently being proposed can be found on this page, and it includes, under section 35/36 of the Mental Health Act, removing the cap on how long someone can be held in hospital while awaiting a report, which is currently set at 12 weeks
**Sources of information and support during the coronavirus pandemic include the following:
The Department of Health and Social Care
National Survivor User Network